Are There Limits To What We Can Believe In Fiction? If So, What Determines These limits?

This relates to film but is really more to do with aesthetics. However i wrote it and felt it was relevant enough to post in my journal.


The imagination is a powerful tool that helps us look beyond possibilities. In the real world we are bound by possibilities and forces such as gravity.1 When we leap out of the window we fall ungracefully to the floor with terrible life-threatening consequences. Yet we freely accept that Superman is able to achieve flight and all because an author tells us that he can. Possibilities and impossibilities are open to our imagination; time travel, spaceships, travelling at speeds faster than light and talking animals are all accepted as proper items of imagination. Although the imagination is a powerful tool there seems to be a limit to what people believe in fiction: a moral limit. I will firstly explain why morality may impose a limit in our imaginative abilities. I will then explore Kendall L. Walton’s position that the limitation in imaginative abilities is due to the impossibility of imagining an opposing moral position as possible. I will then illustrate that Walton’s position is incorrect. I will then come to the conclusion that it is due to an unwillingness, rather than an impossibility, to imagine an opposing moral position as a possibility.


The imagination has a great ability to conjure up fantastical events that couldn’t otherwise ever be performed in the real world. However there does seem to be a limit to what people can imagine freely in fiction. This limit seems to be a moral consideration. Tamar Szabo Gendler explains that ‘When it comes to make-belief… I have a much easier time following an author’s invitation to imagine that the earth is flat than I do following her invitation to imagine that murder is right’.2 What we accept in the real world as a scientific impossibility we can accept as a possibility in the fictional world – we easily accept time travel in Back To The Future (1985). Yet when people are faced with a moral code they find disgusting, that paedophilia is really harmless or that infanticide is good, they resist the fictional world to the point where they stop reading the text entirely. This seems to be due to the exportability of morality. When a film asserts that pigs can fly we know that pigs cannot fly in the real world. When an author asserts that abortion is murder in a novel we know that this belief is applicable and exportable to the real world. The exportable and transferable nature of morality means that the moral position of a novel or film affects the readers ability to fully participate in imagining the fiction world. This is indicated by the inability of many viewers of Triump des Willens (1935) to admire the aesthetic qualities of Leni Riefenstahl’s film due to the moral and political position the film advocates [A further film, and maybe one more problematic, is the film Birth of a Nation (1915)]. One position holds that it is conceptually impossible to believe one moral position while accepting in a fictional world an opposed position as a possibility. This is advanced by Kendall L. Walton.


Walton believes that there is a limit to what we can believe in fiction. Walton believes that it is an impossible task to imagine a morally objectionable reality as good, such as that rape is in fact good for women, in the fictional world and still hold that rape is not good in the real world. Walton states ‘there are limits to our imaginative abilities. It is not clear that I can… imagine accepting just any moral principle I am capable of articulating’.3 Walton explains that, because of his moral beliefs, he is unable to imagine accepting a moral belief contrary to his own. Walton believes slavery to be wrong and cannot imagine accepting it as a possibility. Walton’s moral position is that slavery is morally impermissible. That position requires the belief that slavery cannot ever be morally correct. Therefore, because of his moral position, it would be contradictory to suppose or make-believe that slavery could ever, in any possible realm, be other than morally incorrect. Therefore Walton is unable to imagine slavery as morally correct because his beliefs do not allow the possibility. Walton seems to be arguing that it is impossible for us to imagine outside of our moral position. Walton’s position is called ‘the impossibility hypothesis’ by Tamar Szabo Gendler. 4 Gendler states that the hypothesis is defined by two points:


  1. The scenarios that evoke imaginative resistance are conceptually impossible.

  2. The conceptual impossibility of these scenarios renders them unimaginable.5

Walton believes that holding slavery to be morally impermissible and permissible at once is conceptually impossible and therefore unimaginable. The work has become ‘morally inaccessible’ and therefore the reader is unable to fully enter into the fictional world.6

Walton’s position, and the ‘impossibility hypothesis’, fails because it relies on morality being a fixed construct. Moral beliefs often change radically when they convert or lose their faith. If morality is changeable than imagining an opposing morality as possible and true in a fictional world is not an impossibility; it is rather an unwillingness on the part of the reader. An unwillingness that arises because one doesn’t want to change or accept an opposing moral position as superior. Gendler explains ‘my unwillingness to [imagine] is a function of my not wanting to take a particular perspective on the world – [the real, non fictional world] – which I do no endorse’.7 Essentially the reader fears that accepting a moral stance in the fictional world would mean that they accept such a position in the real world. If we accept in a text that a certain man’s relationship with a young girl was permissible fictionally, then it would lead us to believe it to be a possibility that paedophilia could be permissible in certain circumstances – such as those described in the text. Therefore we opt out of imagining a fictional world where paedophilia is permissible because we fear that we couldn’t reject it, or that we would start to accept it in the real world.


Walton argues that it is impossible to imagine an opposing moral position as a good things. He comes to this conclusion incorrectly. For a fictional world to be impossible to image the subject’s morals must not be changeable. Yet morals are changeable. This indicates that the inability to imagine an opposing morality is in fact an unwillingness on the part of the reader to imagine an other moral position being superior or acceptable. The text may purposely challenge the morals of others, yet the resistance come from the reader. The reader is unwilling to be challenged and enter into imagining a world that they cannot stomach; it isn’t that the proposed fictional world in unimaginable, it is rather that the reader doesn’t want to imagine, and engage with, the fictional world. Because morals are transferable people fear that involvement with a fictional world may include the adoption, or at least acceptance, of an alternative moral position, such as paedophilia being permissible or that slavery is an agreeable business. When we are questioned by fictions that oppose our moral outlook our counter-argument may be just as literary and hypothetical as the fictional world we are defending our position against. Therefore rather than enter into a dialogue with our own and other moral positions we opt to ignore the problems that arise and resist the fictional world. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to what we can imagine as possible in the fictional world but there is a limit to what we will allow ourselves to imagine in accord with out moral beliefs.



1I chose real because I felt it was better than non-fictional – though the term real is not without its problems.

2Tamar Szabo Gendler, ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 97, No. 2, (Feb, 2000) pp. 55-81 p. 58.

3Kendall L. Walton; Michael Tanner ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’ in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 68, (1994), pp. 27-66 p. 48.

4Walton denies that he defends/advocates the so-called ‘impossibility hypothesis’ yet the thesis fits his arguments exactly in regard to his conceptualization of the source of the resistance, I.e. that it is impossible to conceptualize a moral state opposed to one’s own.

5Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 66.

6Kendall L Walton; Michael Tanner, ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’, p. 30.

7Tamar Szabo Gendler ‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’ p. 74.

Narrative Structure: Free And Bound Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.


Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.


Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.

Future Worlds: The Familiar as Future in Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Modernist architecture is noted for its elimination of ornament and simplification of form. An outcome of Modernist architecture is that it produced large estates with many buildings built externally and internally uniform. The central vision of many Modernist estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, were to produce easily reproducible identical living units which would satisfy and reproduce communities ravaged and displaced from their terraced estates by the second world war. Large sprawling streets were replaced with tall expansive high-rise apartment buildings. This style of architecture failed in many estates and rather than being a shining beacon of good planning the estates, like the Park-Hill estate in Sheffield, have become run down poverty stricken and crime infested. The lack of ornament and the Modernist belief in aesthetic uniformity is used in Fahrenheit 451 to symbolise the fictional societies philosophy. Uniformity is cited as the reason why books must be burnt – without uniformity society is violent, passionate and uncontrollable. The contemporary modernist setting of Fahrenheit 451 is used as a site in which the fictional societies philosophy is foregrounded.

Another reason why Modernist architecture is used is to produce a sense of familiar. Fahrenheit 451is set amongst the Modernist architecture of the 1960’s – the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London. Fahrenheit 451 uses the Modernist estate to to produce a future world built from the contemporary fashion and architecture of the 1960’s. This ensures that the future is not really “when” but rather an extension or an extreme version of “now”. Science fiction has always used the future as a safe space in which to deal with the threats and concerns of contemporary society. However Fahrenheit 451 does not allow this act of distancing – normally provided by the setting of a different and unrecognisable future – because the vision of the “future” in Fahrenheit 451 is evidently still the contemporary world. What this does is produce a critique of contemporary society and life that is unavoidable and unmistakable.

Fahrenheit 451 creates a “future” where uniformity has become so important that is has removed all elements of humanity, however; as science fiction critiques the contemporary we can also infer that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing against the very same architecture it is using in the film. It could be said that Fahrenheit 451 is arguing that “ornament”, what Modernist architecture and uniformity removes, is that which makes humanity so interesting and inspirational. Fahrenheit 451 communicates that ornament is the aesthetic response to understanding humanity as impossible to simplify and that “simplicity” of form is the attempt to dehumanize humanity. Therefore Fahrenheit 451 could be seen as a critique of Modernist philosophy of architecture and other rationalising philosophies.

Communication Of Era In Cinema (2)

This is just a short continuation of my earlier post concerning the communication of era in cinema. The actual printing technique, which produces the sepia-style affect found in films such as O’Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), is called Bleach Bypass.

‘Bleach Bypass printing is a process that involves leaving the silver grains in the emulsion layer rather than bleaching them out. This has the effect of desaturating the colour because it is akin to adding a layer of black-and-white to a colour negative’ In both Saving Private Ryan and O’Brother, Where Art Thou?  ‘the desaturation of the colour [by process of bleach bypass]. combined with the… brown palette of the settings… recalls the sepia tones that are used in historical photographs and thus contributes to the films’ emphasis on memory’ and the communication of a by-gone era.1

1. Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis, Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, (2008), p. 173.

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.


In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.


In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.


1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Subjective Realism in Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas?

Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996)

The opening scene of Will it Snow for Christmas? is shot like a home movie. It begins with a handheld shot, filmed at the children’s’ eye level. The scene contains jerking movements, which replicates the rushing anarchy of children playing. Though the colours are saturated, the lighting of the scene is naturalistic. After an establishing shot, filmed from the perspective of the Father’s Truck – a fact we are not yet made aware of – we see a point of view shot from the children looking back towards the red truck. It then cuts back again to the fathers P.O.V, who again situates the viewer in the surroundings of the isolated farm – this isolation, introduced by the technique of loose framing, becomes a repeated motif. The continuity of the trucks continued voyage, between cuts to the children, is called Match on Action and is a traditional rule of continuity editing, which relates to spatial and temporal issues. These combined naturalistic techniques help to create an aesthetical sense of the real. This issue of the aesthetically real is combined with a concern to present normal diction and dialogue. The work of the farm is also represented as hard and the issue of immigration is treated as matter of fact. The use of exposition is characteristic of many films, and Will it Snow for Christmas? Is no different. It is this phase of the film that motifs are established; the irregularity of this film is that its aesthetics are more akin to documentary than other forms of French Cinema, such as the Heritage films, the Cinema du Look and French New Wave. 1.

The motif of the real is also encapsulated in the representation of time. The changing seasons bring corresponding activates and problems for the Mother and her Children. And in this way the story is represented as real through an episodic narrative, which moves along with simple cause and effect logic – a convention of most documentary films. The simplicity of seasonal change affecting the narrative ensures a sense of repetition is imbued in the films structure, along with a sense of the inevitable among the characters. We believe the films representation of life due to the seemingly logical procession of the seasons, but within this we also expect narrative closure with reference to the films title. As winter closes in we expect the narrative to change from an episodic collective into a neatly tied up ending, a closure of narrative found regularly in the nostalgia films of the 1980-90’s. 2. The last scene, where the mothers P.O.V shot shows the children enthusiastically playing in the snow, could be seen at a basic level as a tying up of narrative, the question in the title of the film is answered by its snowing on Christmas. In essence this ending is a continuation of the episodic nature of the film, all we were allowed to see before were episodes of experience, and the viewer can presume that as the seasons change again, the children, though older, will go through the same cycle every year.

1. Pramaggiore, M. & Wallis, T (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 286-289

2. Lanzoni, R.F. French Cinema – From its Beginnings to the Present, (London: Continuum International Publishing 2004) PP 299-347


Hollywood’s view of the close-up

The Untouchables (1987)

In this film, as a man falls off a roof top to his death, i am reminded of the philosophy of the close-up and Hollywood’s reliance upon it. As he falls we are given a close-up [a rather cheap looking one] of his face showing the fear in his eyes. He is an evil man so we are not welcomed into feeling pity or regret.

Bela Balazs said that the close-up ‘radiate[s] a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.’♣

Although the falling of a man to his death is not ‘warm’ but cold it is true that the close-up communicates the hidden nature of things. The tough-rough “anit scared of death” man has been exposed by the close-up, his fragile human nature is uncovered. The close-up becomes a tool in-which the director can show that hard-nosed ultra-violent policing is correct because only when faced with their death do the gangsters show any morsel of humanity. Good policing is bringing back the humanity in a convict either through prison (rather tellingly called a correction facility) or death and according to this movie, death, is the only way that one is brought back to their own humanity.

Hollywood cinema relies upon the close-up to communicate human attitudes tender or not however the consequence is a continouous message of individual responcibility when outside forces should take a portion of the blame/credit for the production of an individuals morality. The close-up focuses upon the eyes and lips and therefore aesthetically removes the outside world from the production of that emotion. The man who falls to the floor falls isolated emotionally because of the close-up technique and the only time he is reunited with society is when he hits a car roof.

♣ Bela Balazs ‘Theory of the Film’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford: Oxford Uni Press (1979), pp. 288-298. p. 289.